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The Ear: Nicholas Zork on Ministry “Outside the Subcultural Vortex”


This week The Ear listens as a single individual offers perspective on his own life and work, and on challenges facing Adventism today in the major western cities.  Nicholas Zork, a graduate of Andrews University, is a musician and worship leader.  (He has led out at some of the One Project meetings.)  Along with his physician wife Noelia, he is the parent of a young child.  Ava is already an active (if well-chaperoned) participant in the family’s congregation, the Church of the Advent Hope in New York City. 

Question: What is your relationship to the Seventh-day Adventist Church?

Answer: I grew up in the Adventist tradition. I was fortunate to be raised by parents who encouraged and supported my participation in the Adventist community and faith practices but never obligated me to do so. I learned to enjoy and value serving within an Adventist church context through involvement in music and worship ministries. My spiritual life has, since my childhood, always been strongly shaped by artistic and liturgical practices. I continue to identify with the Seventh-day Adventist Church in large part because of the positive opportunities that the community has afforded me for liturgically encountering both a diversity of people and — in the midst of that diversity — God. I recognize that my positive experience is not universal within the Church, and I’m grateful for it.

Question: Can you describe you and your family’s current situation?

Answer: I share an apartment home with two incredible women here in New York City. Noelia is a physician, working in academic medicine. Our daughter Ava is — at just six months old — already becoming quite an urbanite. I serve as Minister for Worship and the Arts at Church of the Advent Hope on a quarter-time basis. I’m finishing my PhD in Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, and I also do a variety of independent contract work. I write and edit worship resources, lead congregational song in various church communities (some Adventist, some within other traditions). Additionally, I perform in local music venues, collaborate with other New York artists and write music in various styles (folk, pop, classical) for use in documentaries, television shows, choral festivals, etc. Some of the music is explicitly liturgical; much of it is not.  

Question: So you are a bi-vocational pastor.  Is this path a good for you?  Would it be a good path for others?

Answer: I am not presently a pastor, although I have previously worked as a “pastor” and still often do things that might be considered “pastoral” activities (preach, for example). Even when I was technically a pastor I never related well to the title; nor did I resonate with the incredibly broad job description that attended it. I consider myself a musician and teacher who is strongly committed to serving in a local church community. My position at Advent Hope is similar to what a “Pastor for Worship and the Arts” might do, but the fact that I am bi-vocational affords the opportunity to focus on certain key areas while remaining engaged in a liturgical and musical life outside of the congregation. 

I do not believe that this path is for everyone. Full-time denominational employees with expertise is worship and arts ministry are also needed. But there are, in my view, a few benefits to a bi-vocational model, which I suspect may be true outside of my particular situation. First, bi-vocational ministry creates an opportunity for women and men like me to pursue careers outside of full-time denominational employment while remaining engaged in regular church ministry. If full-time ministry were my only option, I wouldn’t be working for the Adventist Church right now. I would volunteer whenever possible; but I greatly prefer the current arrangement, which allows me to continue my academic and artistic work. Second, a bi-vocational model makes it possible for a local church like Advent Hope to hire a variety of specialized staff rather than a single additional staff member (we also, for example, have a quarter-time organist/pianist/choir director). And third, although bi-vocational ministry can pull a person in too many directions at times, it also creates the possibility of real synergy between the various vocational spheres. In my experience, for example, when I occasionally preach, I can draw on material from my research and writing. Moreover, my involvement in the New York music community makes it much easier to engage local musicians in our chamber music concert series and worship services. 

But I find perhaps the greatest synergy to be at the level of basic perspective. Most participants at Advent Hope are very involved in New York City life. As in other urban congregations outside of Adventist enclaves, members tend to spend most of their time with people who do not share their religious tradition. They are fairly immune from the isolating tendencies of Adventist culture, which are often exacerbated in those who are denominationally employed (whether full- or part-time). This isolation can create a distance between a pastor and the lived experience of members in his or her own church. I know many ministers who work against this by intentionally engaging in the life of the broader neighborhood and city communities. For me, as someone in bi-vocational work, isolation is thankfully not an option. Like most members at Advent Hope, the majority of my colleagues and close friends claim a variety of religious traditions or none at all. In identifying strongly with my diverse city community, I am able to identify, in some way, more strongly with my urban church community as well. Bi-vocational ministry does not guarantee that this happens nor does full-time ministry preclude it. But working in a bi-vocational capacity can offer a helpful resistance to the pull of the Adventist subcultural vortex.

Question: Do the members at Church of the Advent Hope relate primarily to their local congregation?  To the wider institutional Church?  Do they tend to be literate about (to care about and read about) the larger institution’s concerns and, perhaps, quarrels ?

Answer: I can’t, of course, speak for all Advent Hope church members. I will say that, generally, Advent Hope members tend to identify strongly with the global Adventist Church but, in daily practice, are concerned almost entirely with local church ministry. They tend not to keep up with publications. When they do hear about institutional quarrels, they usually seem less concerned with which side is right and more concerned with the fact that resources (time, energy, money) are not being focused on matters of higher priority.   

Question: What does this suggest, do you think, for the future health of our church in Western, and particularly Western urban environments?

As human beings, we have limited bandwidth. In the Adventist community, we tend to use quite a bit of our collective bandwidth on matters that are not highly relevant to local church ministry or the communities these churches are called to serve. We have a lot to offer our neighbors and much to learn from our neighbors; but frankly, we tend to be obsessed with issues that distract us from both serving and learning. 

Our historicist readings of Scripture have led us to be quite worried about Laodicean lukewarmness. But we conveniently forget an equally perilous pitfall: institutional pride. Our institutional pride is nowhere more evident than in the fact that the primary indication of something’s value or danger is often summed up with the question, “Is it Adventist?” This metric reveals an obsession with who is in and who is out that simply does not resonate in many local, urban church contexts — contexts where it is difficult to pretend that such a question has much to do with needs of our neighbors and this world. At Advent Hope, we care a great deal about our Adventist identity, and because of that we try our best to work with a different set of evaluative questions: “Does this communicate the Gospel of Jesus? Does this embody the teachings of Jesus and Scripture? Is this ethical and moral? Is this effective in holistically caring for people, opposing injustice, and promoting peace?”

It’s been said that when all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail. Similarly, when people believe they are the light, everything else starts to look like darkness. But the more I live among the lights of New York City, the more I see them as a metaphor for all the ways that human beings shine in this diverse metropolis. I’m grateful for the opportunity to do bi-vocational ministry because I get to encounter what I perceive as divine light in so many forms and places — biblically, liturgically, and in people from around the world. And I am beginning to learn about the synergistic possibilities of mutual engagement, dialogue, and relationships with my neighbors in this beautifully diverse environment. I know I have learned more than I have taught anyone — and this will continue to be true. 

I am hopeful that the Adventist Church can be a healthy, vibrant presence in places like New York. But the danger of stagnating isolation will persist until we become open to being fed by the streams of those around us and the Spirit who thankfully never waits for us to move.

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